‘We’re not going home:’ Family flees ‘apocalyptic’ wildfire, aims to build back safer

‘We’re not going home:’ Family flees ‘apocalyptic’ wildfire, aims to build back safer

23 Jun    CP, Finance News, PMN Business

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HALIFAX — The church musician often napped after service. But on this Sunday in late May, it was a short rest.

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She awoke to a message from her minister. “There’s a wildfire raging. A nearby subdivision is being evacuated. Are you OK?”

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Maureen McGee drew back her bedroom blinds. Thick plumes of smoke filled the sky.

She scrambled downstairs and told her daughter and son-in-law to pack a few things, thinking they’d be back once the fire was under control.

Instead, it will be years before they return home for good.

***

The McGee house and about 150 others burned to the ground during a devastating wildfire that ripped through a string of Halifax-area subdivisions nearly a month ago, one of the most catastrophic fires in Nova Scotia history.

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In the aftermath, families are grappling with whether to rebuild or start a new life elsewhere.

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It’s a reality other communities in Canada could soon face during what officials say is an unprecedented start to wildfire season.

As climate change brings with it longer, drier summers, wildfires are expected to be more prevalent, grow larger and spread faster.

“Rising temperatures are directly tied to an increase in the number, duration, and severity of wildfires,” a new report by the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute said.

Wildfires have already scorched roughly six million hectares of land this year across the country, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. That’s bigger than the entire province of Nova Scotia.

It raises the question of how homes and communities ravaged by wildfire can be rebuilt to mitigate or even prevent future destruction.

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Using fire-resistant construction materials, removing flammable vegetation from around properties, improving access to fire suppression tools and greater education around campfire and barbecue use are all recommended by experts.

They also say subdivisions should include multiple exits and fire breaks.

It’s a particularly a pressing issue in the McGee’s neighbourhood, a suburban area with large, wooded lots and only one way in and out — a shortcoming the family confronted head-on during a harrowing escape.

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As she stepped outside her home, McGee saw ash falling on her deck. The sky turned a dystopian grey and pungent fumes filled the air.

She was gripped by fear, but tried to remain calm. The fire was on the other side of the lake. There was still no evacuation order. They would be fine.

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They started to drive into the city, but something told her things could get worse. She didn’t have her medication with her. She hadn’t packed enough for her son and husband, both out that afternoon in separate cars.

So McGee turned around, figuring she had plenty of time to grab a few more things from her two-storey home in the Highland Park subdivision.

“It was like an apocalyptic movie,” McGee recalled in an interview. “There was no sun in the sky.”

Her son arrived home; they left the cars running and ran into the house. They could barely breathe from the smoke. They tossed essentials into a suitcase.

McGee rushed to a filing cabinet to grab mortgage documents and house plans. Then she heard shouting.

“I could hear my daughter’s husband scream, ‘You’ve got to get out now, the fire’s in the yard,”‘ she said.

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A towering wall of fire was quickly approaching. “You could feel the heat,” McGee said.

There was still no evacuation order.

McGee jumped in the car with her son. Her daughter and son-in-law were in a car ahead of them with their dog. But the road — the only way to flee the area — was at a standstill.

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“Traffic was stopped,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

Police had blocked the exit to keep the main road clear for Westwood Hills residents, who were under an evacuation order.

“RCMP weren’t letting anybody in or out,” McGee said. “I realized at that point that they didn’t even know Highland Park was on fire.”

Her husband, stuck on the other side of the blockade, pleaded with police to open the road to let his family escape. An officer threatened to arrest him if he didn’t return to his car.

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“We were on the phone together, and he told me to desert the car and run,” McGee said. “But my son kept saying it would be OK, they would let us out soon.”

McGee called her mother.

“I said, ‘Mom, if we don’t get out, I love you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,”‘ McGee said. “That was the worst 30 minutes of my entire life.”

Eventually they heard sirens. Firefighters rushed into the subdivision. Police reopened the road to let people out.

The family reunited soon after in the parking lot of shopping area a few kilometres away.

“We were all hugging and crying,” McGee said. “I realized at that point … we’re not going home.”

***

It’s been almost a month since the family’s terrifying escape.

When she learned the house was gone, McGee found a long-term rental with the help of friends — no easy task during Halifax’s historic housing shortage.

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Then she went about setting up a new home for her family with a mix of new, used and donated items.

“People have been so generous,” McGee said. “The goodness of people is just unbelievable.”

She’s also spent hours on the phone with her insurance company as she confronts the looming issue of rebuilding.

“We heard it could be up to three years to rebuild, but our insurance company says we will be in long before that,” she said. “At least we’re safe. We have each other.”

***

Many families are contending with the decision of whether to rebuild or move.

Yet the overarching issue for both individual homeowners and the community is how to rebuild.

“The neighbourhood shouldn’t go back to the way it was,” Dustin O’ Leary, president of the Westwood Hills Residents Association, said in an interview. “We need to build back safer.”

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He is among the thousands of people that were displaced by the fire.

When he returned to the area, O’Leary said he was stunned by the scale of the incineration.

“There are swaths of land that are just black. Completely scorched,” he said. “It’s incredibly fortunate no one was injured, but there are important lessons learned.”

Some residents have been advocating for changes to improve safety for years.

“The unfortunate thing is sometimes it takes a tragedy before people pay attention,” said Duncan Williams, president of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia.

He lost a garage, a shed and some tools in the blaze. But his house is still standing.

“There’s a number of these subdivisions that should never have been built the way they were,” Williams said. “There’s no fire suppression. There are no fire breaks. There are no emergency exits.”

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He called the one-way in, one-way out layout “a death trap.”

The suburban area also has no city water or fire hydrants. But Williams said there could be pumping stations in the areas to improve the response time of fire crews.

“If we had a pumphouse, the fire trucks wouldn’t have to run down through the woods and pump lake water up to the trucks,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense in the modern world. Our firefighters deserve better.”

***

Another change needed relates to the more mundane task of property maintenance, experts say.

They say removing flammable vegetation from yards and near houses is critical in fire-prone areas.

“Research has shown that home ignitions are caused mostly by travelling embers, not necessarily by a wall of fire,” said Marieke deRoos, a spokesperson for FireSmart Canada. “That’s why it’s important to focus on removing potential fuels and things can easily burn on and around your home and structures.”

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Homeowners should regularly remove debris from gutters, use rocks instead of mulch against a home and keep yards mowed and free of leaves, needles and branches, she said.

Burn barrels and fire pits should be placed far from structures and trees and surrounded by non-combustible material such as gravel, deRoos said.

Campfires should also be fully extinguished with water using a “soak and stir” method, experts say.

Meanwhile, there are also safer choices for fire-resistant construction materials for roofs, doors and siding, such as stucco, metal, brick, concrete and fibre cement cladding, experts say.

Longer term, environmental advocates say Canada needs to rethink how residential neighbourhoods are developed in forested areas and increase the protection of wetlands.

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“There are a lot of allies in nature,” said Mimi O’Handley, wetlands and water coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

“When wetlands are healthy, they are natural sponges and soak up a huge amount of water,” she said. “A wetland can act as a natural fire break and reduce intensity of a wildfire.”

***

For now, McGee is trying to focus on “silver linings.”

“You’ve just got to look for the bright lights and the good people,” she said.

Safety is top of mind as her family begins the gargantuan task of rebuilding. But McGee also hopes the outcome will be better suited for her future grandchildren.

“Good things may come out of this,” she said. “My kids might have a house that’s more friendly for their toddlers.”

McGee added: “And I get to live with my kids for longer. I love my kids.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2023.

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